Fire

Notes from the rewatch: First starts for Drew Conner and Matt Lampson

Notes from the rewatch: First starts for Drew Conner and Matt Lampson

After being fairly consistent with his lineups so far this season, Chicago Fire coach Veljko Paunovic shook things up at two positions ahead of Saturday's match at the LA Galaxy.

Goalkeeper Jorge Bava had played every minute and right back Michael Harrington had started every match, only sitting for 12 minutes, in the first eight matches of the season. Paunovic sent both to the bench against the Galaxy and brought in two first-time starters in Matt Lampson and Drew Conner.

Lampson started 11 matches in 2016 while battling with Sean Johnson for the starting goalkeeper spot, but hadn't played since August. Conner came up as a midfielder through the Fire's academy and after only playing in the USL in his rookie season in 2016 had made four substitute appearances in the midfield in 2017. Conner's first career MLS start came at a new position, right back.

Here's a look at how those two fared plus the Fire's defending on corner kicks, which cost them the win.

Matt Lampson back in goal

To be perfectly honest Lampson wasn't asked to do much. The Galaxy put two shots on target, both off corner kicks and neither of which Lampson had much of a chance to save. The most he was tested was on a Emmanuel Boateng cross in the 67th minute. It wasn't on goal, but Lampson did cleanly catch the ball instead of allowing a loose ball rebound situation. Lampson came off his line on a couple occasions to prevent breakaways and was able to catch one of Giovani Dos Santos' corners. He dribbled out of pressure on one occasion and didn't have any errant passes.

It was a mistake-free showing similar to Bava's shutout against Real Salt Lake in the home opener when he didn't make any saves. Lampson let in two goals that weren't his fault and didn't make any distribution errors.

Drew Conner's first MLS start

If making a first MLS start wasn't enough to test Conner's nerve, he had to do so in a new position and against Ashley Cole and Romain Alessandrini. Cole, a 36-year-old who played for Arsenal and Chelsea and has over 100 caps for England, isn't as fast as he used to be, but is still one of the better left backs in MLS. Alessandrini is the Galaxy's newest designated player and has been the team's top attacking threat this season.

Conner had been training as a right back with the Fire, but this was his first game time at the position outside of a 12-minute stint against New England on April 15 when the Fire were up three goals and a man. Conner was subbed out after 75 minutes and managed to not get burned on a goal, but he did get burned a few times.

Alessandrini got behind Conner on two occasions in the first half hour. The first time he got a cross away and the second time Johan Kappelhof slid over to cover for Conner and give LA a corner.

Conner was higher up the field than right winger Luis Solignac on quite a few occasions early. It's hard to tell if this was tactical or Conner being too high up the field for a defender. Solignac did seem to drop back to cover Conner in these situations.

Conner's defensive highlight is probably this marking job he did on Alessandrini as the Galaxy winger went to head a cross (try not to be mesmorized by the left side of the Fire's defense being sliced and diced by Bradley Diallo).

When Emmanuel Boateng subbed into the match late in the first half for an injured Jermaine Jones, Alessandrini moved to the right. Boateng was fresher at that point and is faster than Alessandrini. He got by Conner a few times to get away clean crosses, but nothing came of them. Boateng is LA's version of David Accam. He burns a lot of people on a regular basis.

Offensively, Conner completed 21 of his 30 passes and didn't attempt any crosses. He had a couple nice touches and passes in traffic, but didn't contribute much to the attack.

Corner kick defending

The Galaxy had eight corner kicks and scored two goals from them. Lampson caught one and one was floated to the edge of the box where Boateng collected it and there was no header. Out of the six corner kicks where there were headers, LA won four of them and three led to shots on goal. This cost the Fire the win.

Daniel Steres, who scored LA's first goal, also had a free header on an Alessandrini free kick in the 72nd minute that could have given LA the lead, but went over the bar.

The Fire's lack of movement on LA's first goal is staggering.

Paunovic will likely prioritize improvement from his team on defending corner kicks this week.

Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon

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USA TODAY

Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon

As far as notorious players in MLS with a history of scoring big goals, Alan Gordon is one of the first names on that list.

The Fire signed the 36-year-old forward on Friday, continuing to add depth to a roster that appeared paper thin throughout the preseason. Gordon, who had been on trial with the Fire for part of the preseason and even after the season opener, signed a one-year deal.

Gordon adds plenty of experience from being in the league since 2004 and having scored 55 goals with five different teams. For the past few years he has been used primarily as a substitute, but has still maintained his reputation for scoring goals late in games.

At 6-foot-3 he brings plenty of size and strength to the team and is one of the best players on headers in the league. Last season the Fire failed to score directly off a set piece, which was both due to consistently poor service from corner kicks and a lack of players adept at finishing them off. Gordon should give the Fire a late-game option in that area.

Elliot Collier had impressed the Fire enough to earn a contract as a third-round pick and an international player and even came off the bench in the opening loss to Sporting Kansas City, but it appears the team wanted more experience at forward with Gordon.

Wild season opener shows plenty of things to work on for Fire

Wild season opener shows plenty of things to work on for Fire

If you were looking for entertainment, goals, plot twists and storylines, the Fire’s season opener had all of those boxes checked.

What it didn’t have was even a point for the hosts against Sporting Kansas City on Saturday at Toyota Park.

The first half showed a Fire team which very much looked like the “incomplete” roster that general manager Nelson Rodriguez referenced just before the season. KC led 2-0 and the Fire failed to get a shot on target, showing a lack of chance creation and any semblance of a dangerous attack.

The second half showed a Fire attack which was capable of turning the heat up on the visitors, but also a defense which couldn’t defend. Sporting's 4-3 win revealed that there’s plenty of work to do for the Fire to resemble the team that finished third in the MLS regular season last year.

“Especially in the first half we saw that we weren’t ready to compete with a team that had an advantage that they had one competition game before us,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “That was the main difference in the first half, but the adjustment in the second half was tremendous. I think just showing that we can score three goals that quickly and create even more opportunities was a positive.”

However, Paunovic wasn’t about to let his team off the hook by only speaking about positives.

“What we learned today is that we have to get better on every side of the game and in every aspect of the game,” he said. “We are not there. We didn’t have a good game. I think overall a lot of innocent and naive mistakes.”

After trailing 2-0 at halftime, the Fire revved things up in the final 25 minutes and Bastian Schweinsteiger keyed the first goal with a slick assist to newcomer Aleksandar Katai. Nemanja Nikolic showed the scoring instincts and finishing ability that won him the league scoring title a year ago by scoring two more goals to give the Fire the lead in the 82nd minute.

Then it all fell apart, with two KC goals within four minutes of Nikolic giving the Fire the lead. Dax McCarty, your thoughts?

“You’re 10 minutes away from the headline and the storyline being Chicago Fire show great character, make a fantastic comeback, win the game 3-2 and yet here we are sitting here, somehow losing that game, which is insane,” McCarty said. “It’s totally insane.”

The defensive struggles, which Paunovic pointed out mirrored last year’s early playoff exit in a 4-0 loss, will need to get resolved internally. Johan Kappelhof, Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster all started on a competent defense last year and McCarty and Schweinsteiger helped play damage control in midfield. This isn’t what the weakness of the team was supposed to be yet after one game, it’s all anyone on the team could talk about.

“We gave up four goals,” Kappelhof said. “That’s not good. Simple.”

While more additions may be coming in-season, as Rodriguez has mentioned, and injuries haven’t allowed the Fire to start 2018 fresh, this game wasn’t a good sign for what’s to come for the 2018 Fire. A lack of any offensive creation in the first half and a lack of defensive concentration, as Paunovic put it, throughout the game showed a team that has plenty of pock-marks currently.

“We don’t know how to defend, quite frankly," McCarty said. "From back to front, front to back, the defending aspect of our game was pretty poor. A lot of things to learn."

The good news is even if the Fire take some time to correct the errors from Saturday’s season opener, MLS is a forgiving league. A majority of the league, 12 of 23 teams, makes the playoffs and league-wide parity means teams can go through slumps and still end in good standing. A year ago, the Fire lost six games out of seven and still had the third best record in the league. It’s OK if the team takes time to iron out some organizational issues defensively, just don’t take too long.